Tuesday, October 06, 2015

What Does It Mean To Politicize an Issue? And Where Do Pastors Fit In?

The same day as the Umpqua Community College shootings, President Obama gave an impassioned speech regretting the violence and calling for more gun control. In his remarks he made an interesting statement, proactively responding to an inevitable criticism of more calls for gun control. He said that some complain that he and others would politicize this issue and remarked that of course he would politicize it - it in fact needed to be politicized.

What does it mean to politicize an issue? A simple dictionary search comes up with definitions like, "to cause an issue to become a political matter" or to "try and convince others of your political views." These are true as far as they go, but I believe there are at least two other ways of talking about this that are more comprehensive and helpful, and are intellectual and sociological consequences of politicization. To politicize an issue is to inherently change the way we talk about the meaning of the issue and the potential solutions of an issue.

So here are two ways politicization affects public discourse.

It (normally) removes discussion about the issue out of the realm of true or false.

Politicized speech is a devolution of argumentation. By in large it will take an issue that is normally quite complex with several thoughtful positions and reduce it to a handful of expressions that can be contained in sound bites, scribbled on protest signs, and printed on bumper stickers and presented in a dichotomous either-or way. Regardless of how President Obama and others talk about gun control, it just isn't that simple. It doesn't matter how quickly pundits explain the situation in Syria, or the Trans Pacific Partnership, or fracking - it is not that simple. But, in order to politicize the issue, it must be pulled out of the arena of nuance, research, and argument and turned into something simplistic. The goal of politicized speech is no longer truth-seeking or persuasion by argumentation, but poll numbers and votes. Sustained thought and back-and-forth reasoning is not possible (in the end) with politicized speech, but propaganda and peer pressure are.

It creates the illusion that the best (only?) solutions to our common problems are contained in the political and governmental arena.

To stick with my example, if you want to fix problems associated with gun ownership, the only place to go is the government. Pass another set of laws. Write another book of regulations and that ought to fix it. Expanding the examples from recent events - if you want to fix racism, pass a set of laws and ostracize certain people and expunge certain parts of history. To politicize these issues is to strongly imply that with a quick wave of the Presidential pen and enough funding, we can solve these problems.

Now, don't get ahead of me here. I believe that every public issue may have political consequences and rightfully so. Most people are all for federal background checks for the purchases of firearms. Amendments to the Constitution securing rights to vote and the end of slavery are obviously good things. But those are political solutions to certain public problems that do a large degree of good. Taken to its extreme, it becomes the belief that the best (only?) solutions we have to large common problems can be found in government. This is the act of politicizing an issue.

And government clearly does not have solutions to most of our common problems. Racism, for instance, is a hatred/heart issue with social consequences. Laws and regulations may stem the tide of those consequences, but they will never deal with the hatred/heart issue. And on and on the examples could go.

Here is where the pastor and the church come in. Without a long explication let me lay this on the table: Christian theology is the study of what is true in God's creation and in Christ. Pastors and churches teach and proclaim knowledge about the way things really are and not the way Christians want them to be in the secret corners of their hearts. God is Lord over all creation and the church is the repository of his truth. The church has solutions to our large, common problems and pastors are tasked with proclaiming those truths in wise and winsome ways.

Pastors - take your place in the public square.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Amnesty International, The Military, and the Sex Slave Trade

The New York Times published a horrifying story about the rape and abuse of Afghan boys by Afghan militia leaders and the U.S. military’s position that our soldiers are not allowed to do anything about it. In “U.S.Soldiers Told to Ignore Sexual Abuse of Boys by Afghan Allies,” US soldiers tell their stories of knowing about the abuse and being told to look the other way. In addition, when they did interfere they faced official charges for getting involved. (Most recently a Green Beret is fighting his dismissal over doing something about the abuse.) An article like this rightly strikes us as horrific because of our innate moral sense that this kind of behavior is inherently immoral and it does not matter who engages in it. Pedophiliac rapists are wrong no matter what their culture teaches. Then we are doubly aggravated because our moral compass is frustrated by the illogical policy that sex trafficking, rape, and pedophilia are overlooked exactly because we are dealing with another culture. So, we find significant moral dissonance with something like this – a conflict between two strong moral intuitions in our current culture.

The first is that this kind of sexual exploitation and violence is simply wrong. And by "simply wrong" we mean to say that there are not situations in which we can imagine that kind of violence to be right. The second is that we have become deeply hesitant to judge the moral actions of other cultures out of a misguided sense of tolerance. Who are we to say they are wrong? And currently, the wining force is on the side of this conception of tolerance. Even if we still see pedophiliac rape as morally wrong, our cultural institutions are hesitant to act as if it is wrong. Our moral instincts are slowly running afoul of reality.

This kind of moral judgement (many will see it as a lack of moral judgement, but it is in fact a cowardly moral judgement) is not limited to some recently uncovered military protocol. It is systemic in the Western world. For example, the vaunted international human rights organization, Amnesty International, has recently begun to weigh in on the problem of the human sex slave trade and their growing record is decidedly mixed. They recently passed a proposal regarding their position on the sex slave trade that is less than brave. It leans in the direction of decriminalizing the sale and rape of human beings for fun.  From an article in the Washington Post:

Amnesty International recently adopted a proposal that recommends decriminalizing the sex trade, a move that it says is for the human rights and equal protections of sex workers. This proposal instead gives amnesty to pimps, brothel owners and sex buyers by recognizing everyone in sex work as “consenting adults.”

The moral reasoning is as baffling as the conclusion involving “consenting adults”:

This industry is not safe, and Amnesty International understands that sex workers in many countries face high levels of violence, but it draws the implausible conclusion that the danger lies in societal stigma, not in the precarious nature of the sex industry and those who exploit it.

Amnesty International is unwilling to take a stand against an aggressive, largely anti-female evil on the grounds that calling it a moral evil might stigmatize the victims. In some insulated circles this sounds like brave moral reasoning. In the clear light of day it is dangerous and sophomoric.

I know how complicated the world of aid to women and girls caught in the sex trafficking can be. I helped found an organization that provides long-term support, education, and ministry to girls rescued from the sex slave trade here in the United States. If you want to donate to an organization actually doing something for these girls, I encourage you to join me in giving to Sarah’s Home.

It is obvious that the girls we work with have deep and abiding issues they need to work through for a long time in order to lead healthy, independent lives. And they are not “easy” to work with. But far and beyond the complications of working with the girls is the snake’s nest of dealing with government bureaucracy. It is impossible to work with any single organization, so you have to convince several of them of the value of what you do, which inevitably does not fit into the pre-printed boxes on their paperwork. And if you get one branch of government on your side, you still deal with the inane and CYA policies of the others. Over and over our work is hindered by government, not primarily the girls.

And one of the most significant issues we face is how to categorize these girls once they are in the system. Because the American culture is just now coming to terms with the reality of sex trafficking in our borders, we simply do not have legislation that helps the victims in ways they need help. Technically they are often processed as prostitutes, even at the age of 13, and when a wise Police Officer realizes what is going on the best solution they often have is to put them in the domestic abuse system. The first category labels them as a criminal; the second doesn’t go far enough to help. So laws and policies need to change to make the work a long term success.

All that to say, I understand that Amnesty International may not have pre-approved legal categories for the victims of sex trafficking at their disposal, but their solution is the dumbest and most harmful possible. You don’t help these kids by de-stigmatizing the organized crime behind rape-for-profit. If you are moral and brave, you take a clear ethical stand and begin to change the system. We did that in our own small way, and if there are courageous people at AI, maybe they can do the same.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Pastor As Public Intellectual

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Owen Strachan, The Pastor As Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015).

As soon as I heard this book existed I looked it up, read up on some of the details, and immediately purchased it. I knew it was going to resonate with my thoughts on the pastorate, what has been lost and what needs to be regained, and it had the promise of producing significant insight. It was only in the second paragraph into the Introduction when my pencil came out and began making notes:

Too many pastors have exchanged their vocational birthright for a bowl of lentil stew (Gen. 25:29-34; Heb. 12:16): management skills, strategic plans, “leadership” courses, therapeutic techniques, and so forth….Theology is in exile and, as a result, the knowledge of God is in ecclesial eclipse.

Amen, and amen. The goal of the book is to reclaim theology as the core of the pastoral vocation. In their educated opinion, and mine as well, theology has been successfully separated from the pastorate with serious consequences. In order to reclaim this ground, the authors delineate three publics, or arenas, which have laid claim on this change in the pastoral profession: the academy, the church, and the broader society. In each arena there are distinct challenges to meet in order to reunite the role of theology and the vocation of pastoring.

Their first broad argument is that the pastor is inherently and necessarily a theologian and is always in some sense a public theologian. As such the pastor ought to become a public intellectual, a generalist of sorts, or what they call an “organic intellectual.” The pastor is not as specialized as most academic intellectuals, but they are competent in the world around them, the Gospel, and in the human condition. So much so, that they are reliable voices on truth where these things intersect. They do specialize, but in the knowledge that is made available in Christ and his Word, and become adept at relating those truths to all that the church interacts with. If this sounds like a tall order, that may be for two reasons. First, it may sound like a lot because we have sold the vocation of pastor short by defining it in corporate and managerial terms. And secondly, it sounds expansive because maybe that really is what the vocation of pastor is supposed to be.  The authors write:

Pastor-theologians, like Solzhenitsyn, are generalists, yet with a difference: pastor-theologians give voice to the church’s understanding of the meaning of life – or rather, the meaning of the life hidden in in Christ (Col. 3:3). Pastor-theologians know something particular and definite, but strictly speaking, it is not specialized knowledge. The pastor-theologian is rather a special kind of generalist: a generalist who specializes in viewing all of life as relating to God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Better: the pastor-theologian is an organic intellectual who is present as the mind of Christ, which animates the body of Christ. (pg. 25, italics theirs)

With a lot of challenging materials in just the Introduction, I am struck by the vision of pastoring presented by the authors. Pastors are not small figures overseeing the management and volunteer structures of their fiefdoms, employing some version of the same old marketing techniques to grow their influence. They are significant cogs in the spiritual and public lives of their congregation and the communities they find themselves in. They have significant things to say about reality and the way things ought to be. They are not relegated to some kind of spiritual social worker who everybody really knows is just a glorified food pantry operator. They are the bearers and translators of actual knowledge and ought to treat their lives as such.

But in order for this to be true about the pastor, they must recover a vision as old as the people of God in which the leaders of the congregation are deeply serious about the things of God, the souls of the people, and the life of the world around them.

Pope Francis, Meet President Obama, and Welcome to the Land of Infantile, Illiberal Intolerance

If you listen to the rants of many political and cultural liberals today you might get the feeling that they are very a tolerant people. You would at least get the clear sense that they want you to be tolerant of ideas and lifestyles you disagree with. But there is a catch. The modern, liberal idea of tolerance is not what it is made out to be. To paraphrase a wise man, I do not think it means what they think it means.

In short, “tolerance” sounds like the virtue by which you agree to disagree and learn how to work with and talk with people who see things differently than you do. It might simply be called civility. In reality it is a label used to coerce and shame people into seeing things the way political liberals see things. It is the opposite of actual tolerance – it is a severe and short-tempered distaste for people who see things differently. “If you are tolerant, you will agree with us!”

Enter the Papal visit. President Obama and his Administration have organized a reception committee for the Pope’s visit to the White House which includes every imaginable dissenter from the doctrines and practices of the church in an attempt to make their position known. It is exactly what a petulant child would do to make sure mom and dad know they are angry and are not getting their way. A full article is at the WSJ behind the pay wall, but here is an excerpt from some reporting on Hot Air:

At practically the same time that Barack Obama has decided that the US has to shut its eyes to dissenters in Cuba suffering under the yoke of oppression by the Castros, he plans to offer a lesson in dissent to Pope Francis. Obama has extended invitations for the pontiff’s first state visit to transgender activists, a gay Episcopal bishop, and the leader of a group of nuns that want changes to Catholic teachings on abortion and euthanasia.

By lining up a veritable circus of people who openly oppose the Vatican, the President and current Administration are expressing exactly the opposite of tolerance and hospitality. They are making it clear that they are incapable of living with the Catholic Church in all of its historical catholicity. The transgendered activists are inflexibly right, they are asserting, and the church needs to get with the times. As if Christians have not heard this gripe before and outlived and out-argued it every time.

You might think that this is just one expression of a policy of dissent the Administration has adopted in order to express to the world at large one of the clear benefits of living in an American system where political differences do not get you put in jail. That would be nice, but you would be wrong.

I’m curious. When the Saudis visited the White House this month, did Obama invite women’s-rights activists to dinner with them? Did Obama invite Ayaan Hirsi Ali to discuss the need for reform in Islam? No? Which entity has more need for openness, inclusiveness, and tolerance?

So why does a cultural force that preaches so much tolerance fail so miserably at being tolerant of other points of view? This really is not a mystery. When a worldview loses touch with truths beyond its own making, the only way for it to promote itself over other worldviews is by force. And here, force can take the form of brute force, propaganda, emotional manipulation, peer pressure, censorship, shouting, etc. All of these are effective means to enforce your ideas, but none of them have inherent connections with the truth. If, however, a worldview holds that there are truths to reality, including moral and theological truths, then it need not resort to intimidation to get its point across.  It can, by the very nature of the convictions of the worldview, argue for its conclusions.

(In one of the great philosophical ironies of the 20th century, the Postmodern critique of Modernism as power can only be argued for through some form of power-wielding.)

If you cannot do that, you throw fits like a child. You make scenes intended to embarrass and shame people you disagree with so you can try and bully them into becoming as tolerant as you are.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Things you don’t want to hear your Doctor say, but which I have been told in the last 2 months.

I have a great deal of appreciation for doctors and nurses and all they do. Even dentists. My last couple of months, however, have been full of unexpected visits and interesting conversations. I hope you enjoy more than I did.

“When I put that filling in (1 and ½ years ago…) I made a mistake and didn’t go deep enough. That’s why you tooth is dying and you now need a root canal.”

(2nd dentist visit on the same day to confirm) “Yup.”

(During the root canal) “We are pulling an unusual amount of puss out of this tooth. I’m surprised you weren’t in more pain than you were. Either that, or you are used to pain in your head.” (I didn’t realize I was given the option of the Spinal Tap pain scale, because, you know, 11 is louder than 10.)

(After the first root canal didn’t take away the pain) “We have about 1 in 100 patients react like this.”

(When they decided to redo the root canal with even more medication) “We do hundreds of these in this office in a year, and almost never does a patient have this problem.”

(Conversation with an ER nurse) “Are you feeling any better?” “No.” “Seriously?”

(Same ER nurse) “We are used to guys walking in here with your problem screaming in pain. I don’t know what to do with a guy who isn’t.”

(From the same ER nurse) “I gave you enough pain medication to ice an elephant.”

“You have two kidney stones.”

(From the ER Doc) “When you got here, you looked like crap. Pardon my language, but you looked awful.”

(From the Surgeon) “We’ll pull that stint out next week. Without anesthesia.”

(An exchange between nurses on my way to the operating room from pre-op)
Surgery nurse: “We are going to wheel you around the corner. You have been medicated, so we can’t let you walk.”
Nurse from around the corner: “Can your patient walk there? We have construction in the hallway and we can’t get the bed through.”
“He’s not authorized to walk.”
“We can’t get the bed through.”
After a short, pointed remark from the surgery nurse and a trip to the hallway, he returned to say, “We are going to have to walk you down the hallway.”

With him in front of me and another nurse behind me making sure my already undone gown didn’t float away in the breeze, we made our way single file past the construction workers.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Bad Ideas Have Really Bad Consequences

The horrors of Planned Parenthood, exposed by the video releases by the Center for Medical Progress (the 10th being released today), are inevitable consequences of the worldview that created the organization. People are rightly shocked  to hear what they do to babies crushed to death in their mother's womb, or pulled out in-tact in their amniotic sacs and cut to pieces, or born alive and then scissored open to harvest organs while the heart is still beating. But in one very important sense they should not be surprised by the news.  For a long time large parts of the Western world looked on in shocked disbelief at the discovery of the Nazi concentration camps, but in one sense they should have been prepared for their existence.

It has been said a million times and deserves saying a million times more because people simply do not believe that it is true: ideas have consequences. And, logically speaking, bad ideas can have bad - really bad - consequences. Some consequences are an unfortunate and non sequitur extension of big ideas, and in those cases the ideas may not be directly responsible for the outcomes. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the way in which the Crusades are connected to Christian theology is just such an example. However, there are situations in which the consequence is directly linked to the idea (or ideology) in such a way as to allow someone to react to the consequence by thinking, "We should have seen that coming." In other words, that person is entirely rational in predicting an outcome before we know it, and may be able to do so with a surprising degree of accuracy.

(Some insightful historical research is being done linking Darwin to the more radical evils of the 20th Century, including Sanger's work.)

The destruction and sale of human body parts by Planned Parenthood is such a situation. The Progressive, eugenic agenda upon which PP is founded is so blatantly horrific that it is often actively suppressed and always deliberately blurred so as to hide its founding principles. Margaret Sanger wanted to kill as many of the poor, blacks, Italian Catholics, and Jews as possible, so she founded an organization to do just that. Additionally, what has been called Progressivism in America for just over a century is fundamentally secularist, strenuously rejecting any religious or ethical principles which may impose themselves upon our behavior from outside the ideology. When an idea/movement as powerful as Progressivism does that for as long as it does, we ought not be surprised when its most devoted followers take matters into their own hands and do things normal people thought were unthinkable.

Secularism Eventually Deteriorates Into Crass Individualistic Relativism
Here, I use "secularism" in two ways, one strong and the other weak. The weak version of secularism is the belief that individuals have the right to hold to religious beliefs as long as they know those beliefs have no bearing on the public square and our common lives. You can be a Christian all you want, just do it by yourself. The strong version may also be called metaphysical naturalism - the position that holding religious beliefs is irrational because no such thing as God exists. In either case secularism seeks to disconnect itself from ethics rooted in theology, and in both cases, public morality is reduced to a matter of power and propaganda and dying vestigial folkways and mores. The religious believer, qua religious believer, is squeezed out of the public square in favor of some other more so-called scientific and secularist form of morality.

When a culture unchains itself from the sun it will playact at a public morality for a period of time, but it will not be long before things begin to unravel at the edges. Publicly it will be assumed that people obey some form of culturally acceptable moral codes, often borrowed from its religious roots, but people are smarter and more morally devious than Progressives want to believe so they begin to stray from the agenda and do things their own way. Then it turns out that because we severed ourselves from any objective form of public morality, we quickly discover there is no compelling authority which has the ability to stop the horror show. Every answer to the secularist/cultural relativist can legitimately be a dismissive, "sez who?"

Secularism Inevitably Leads To The Devaluation of Human Beings
In order to protect the most vulnerable among us we need a way of grounding human dignity in places beyond current public opinion. If we can't do that, then certain classes of humans will become disposable nuisances. This has played itself out hundreds, even thousands, of times in human history in every conceivable form from the rampant enslavement of one group of people by another to a multitude of attempts at genocide. If humans qua humans do not have dignity and value, then humans are conferred value by an individual's decision or the public's current mood. This does not bode well for humans at the margin, and so it is today for humans in the womb and humans at death's door.

In order to avoid the horror show of Planned Parenthood, people need a theology of human personhood that speaks to an inherent and invaluable worth that cannot be conferred or removed by any individual or institution. Only then can humans at the margin be protected in the long term. But here again, secularism has served to remove that pillar out from underneath our culture's foundation and we are witnessing our own holocaust as a result.

The idea we need is the Christian valuation of human beings – every human is created in the image of God and is of un-measurable worth. No human being, no matter what stage of life, deserves to be torn apart for research and profit.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Choose To Follow Christ

"[M]any of us live our lives with the perpetual question, 'Lord, what do you want me to do; what is

my mission?' The common mistake is that we seek the answer to this question before we start walking the path of obedience. This is exemplified by nearly 50 percent of churchgoers who attend services a couple of times a month, throw something in the offering that is below 2 percent of their income, and hope to hear something that will get them through the week. They don't see themselves as disciples, learners, or followers of Jesus. They believe self-denial is for monks, missionaries, and ministers. They go through life being Christian without being Christlike. They never pick up their cross because they never submit themselves to true discipleship. In fairness to them, sad to say, often no one has taught them what following Jesus really means."

Your 'Get Through The Middle of the Week' Post

This guy is as talented as he is funny.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

I'm Pretty Sure a Good Theology of Joy Includes Laughter

My lovely and talented wife, Heather, never laughs at these guys, but that doesn't stop me from inflicting them on her from time to time. This episode, however, had her laughing and crawling out of her skin at the same time. It's one of the funniest things I have watched in a while.

Maybe the internet exists to watch other, braver, people sample Jelly Fish Jello.